Sunday, April 21, 2024


The National Marine Fisheries Service has recently released its latest edition of Fisheries Economics of the United States, the newest in an annual series of reports that dates back to 2006.  The report provides an overview of the nation’s commercial and recreational fisheries as of the end of 2022 and, from my perspective, contained a few surprises.

Perhaps the biggest surprise related to the relative size of the commercial and recreational fisheries. 

If you think back to 2014, you might remember when Michael Nussman, then the president of the American Sportfishing Association, kicked off the Center for Sportfishing Policy’s (then, the Center for Coastal Conservation’s) drive to pass the so-called “Modern Fish Act,” which was intended to weaken the conservation and management provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act with respect to recreational fisheries.

As part of that kickoff, Mr. Nussman displayed two pitchers, one filled with gumballs, and one with a single gumball rattling around in the bottom.  The pitchers, along with the gumballs that they contained, were supposed to represent the relative landings of America’s commercial and recreational fishing industries—which, given the size of some of the big commercial fisheries for walleye pollock and menhaden, was probably a reasonably accurate assertion.  With that relationship established, he then poured most of the gumballs from the “commercial” pitcher into the “recreational” one, claiming that the number of gumballs in each pitcher represented the relative number of jobs supported by each industry, with the recreational industry being the clear leader.

I didn’t think too much about his jobs comment, because I tend to pay more attention to the conservation aspects of fisheries management than to economic issues and, I suspect like many anglers, always accepted industry claims that recreational fishing provided greater economic benefits than does the commercial sector.  I never gave such claims any critical thought.

Apparently, that was a mistake.

The Fisheries Economics report reveals that the commercial sector not only supports more than twice as many jobs as does the recreational fishery—about 1,600,000 commercial jobs compared to only about 700,000 in the recreational sector—but also generates somewhat higher sales, $183 billion versus $138 billion.  

While many economic gauges of the commercial fishing industry, including sales and total revenues, were slightly lower in 2022 than they were in 2018, jobs were the one exception, showing steady growth each year, with the exception of COVID-impacted 2020.

It seems that the hoary advice to “Trust, then verify” applies to the recreational fishing industry's pronouncements as well as to everything else.

The nation’s commercial fisheries differ widely from region to region, in both revenues and the type of seafood caught.  Probably to no one’s surprise, the North Pacific region—which means Alaska—produces nearly 58% of all seafood landings (by weight) and 35% of the revenues.  Most of those landings are comprised of finfish, and most of that finfish is low-value walleye pollock which, in the United States, typically takes the form of Fillet O’ Fish sandwiches and imitation crab, although the majority of the walleye pollock landed are exported to other nations.  Because so much cheap pollock is in the catch, the average price of North Pacific seafood is the lowest of any of the regions, at about $0.43 per pound.

We see the opposite situation in New England, where only about 447 million pounds of seafood is landed—just 5% of United States landings—but because around 90% of those landings are high-value shellfish, mostly sea scallops and lobster, the average value of New England's landings in 2022 was $3.20 per pound, placing the region in second place for landings revenue.  That trend was even more pronounced in the Western Pacific—Hawaii and the various Pacific island territories—which only accounted for an inconsequential 0.35% of United States landings, but its landings were comprised almost entirely of tuna and other high-value finfish, which were worth an average of $4.62 per pound.

The volume and value of commercial landings in the other regions fell somewhere between those extremes, whether ranked by value, pounds landed, or average price per pound.  One of the interesting aspects of the commercial landings data was that, in five out of the seven regions (for whatever reason, NMFS did not break out data for the Caribbean region in the report), shellfish landings substantially exceeded landings of finfish.  The North Pacific and Western Pacific regions were the only exceptions to that general trend.

The recreational fishery showed more consistently positive economic trends than did its commercial counterpart.  All four of the economic indicators—jobs, sales, value added, and income—showed steady growth between 2018 and 2022, with no COVID-related dropoff.  

Angling-related jobs increased by 8% between 2021 and 2022, while sales increased 22%, income increased 18%, and value-added also increased 18% in the same period.  Durable equipment purchases accounted for the lion’s share of all the economic indicators; the remainder was attributable to expenditures made on fishing trips.  

I was surprised to find that, of the three fishing modes—for-hire, private boat, and shore-based—shore-based trips had the greatest economic impact, contributing 8% to employment, sales, and value-added impacts, and 7% to income, although the private-boat mode trailed the shore-based mode closely in every category but employment, where it lagged substantially.  In each case, the for-hire mode lagged the other two modes, and was particularly far behind in the sales and value-added categories.

As was the case in the commercial fishery, the characteristics of the recreational fishery differed from region to region.  Not surprisingly, the value of the recreational fishery was greatest in the south, where year-round fishing is the norm, and less in more northern (or, in the case of the Western Pacific, less populated) regions.  The Gulf of Mexico saw anglers expend more money, $5.1 billion ($3.4 billion of which was generated in west Florida), on fishing trips than anglers in any other region.  The Gulf was followed by the South Atlantic ($3.5 billion, with $1.6 million generated in east Florida) and Mid-Atlantic ($2.3 billion) regions.  The lowest trip expenditures were made in the Western Pacific ($435 million), New England ($584 million), and North Pacific ($696 million) regions.

How that money was spent differed substantially from region to region.  In most places, the for-hire fishery played a relatively minor role.  Although it accounted for about 60% of trip expenditures in the North Pacific, perhaps because of the dominance of the tourism industry there, and for about one-third of the expenditures in the Pacific region, it played a much smaller role elsewhere, accounting for a little less than 20% of trip expenditures in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps 10% in New England, and little more than 5% in the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic regions.  In the Western Pacific, it played no role at all.

Perhaps unexpectedly, shore-based angling accounted for close to 60% of all trip expenditures in the South Atlantic, and less surprisingly, about half in the Western Pacific; in all other regions, except for the North Pacific, shore-based fishing contributed to between 30% and 40% of all trip expenditures, which is a large percentage, given that fishing from shore is not generally a costly endeavor.  Private boat fishing, which can be expensive, was the primary contributor to trip expenses in all regions except the North Pacific and South Atlantic.  In the Pacific region, shore fishing, private boat fishing, and for-hire fishing seem to account for approximately equal shares of trip expenditures.

Unlike the commercial data, which only showed trends since 2018, the recreational data goes back to 2013, and shows that angling effort has dropped sharply over that time.  Total trips, shore-based trips, and private boat trips all peaked in 2013, and have declined since, although 2022 effort in all three categories was noticeably above the lows hit in 2019.  The for-hire pattern is a little different, with trips peaking in 2014 but coming close to that level again in 2015, 2019, and 2021, before declining in 2022 to what was probably close to the time series average.

The national recreational catch was led by East and Gulf Coast fish.  In 2022, anglers caught (both landed and released) 70.1 million seatrout, 33.5 million striped bass, and 29 million of what the report listed as “summer” flounder, but given that it also said that such flounder were caught in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, probably included southern and Gulf flounder as well.

As one would suspect, the catch of some species increased between 2013 and 2022, while the landings of others decreased during the same period.  The largest increases were to catches of red snapper (37%), striped bass (4%) and the various Pacific tuna (2%), while the largest decreases were to catches of dolphin (-58%), Pacific salmon (-38%), and summer flounder (-35%).

Looking at those figures, it becomes glaringly obvious that the declines were far greater than the increases, and that we seem to be losing far more than we’ve gained.  With the exception of red snapper, which hasbeen the beneficiary of a long, rigorous rebuilding program, there’s not a lot of evidence of good fisheries management anywhere in that list.

And that should start warning bells ringing.  As the Fishing Economics report shows, both the commercial and the recreational fishing industries can be important economic drivers for coastal states and, in the aggregate, important to the national economy as well.

But as I’ve noted so many times, if we want to have a fishing industry, we need to have fish.

Which means that maintaining an effective federal fishery management system ought to be a national priority, and one that must not be undermined by those, in both the commercial and recreational communities, who would sacrifice long-term sustainability for a mere few seasons of gain. 

No comments:

Post a Comment